SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS – Don’t get mad, I warned you, SPOILERS
Having never been a Trekkie, no one was more surprised than me when I loved the 2009 franchise reboot from JJ Abrams. I kind of love it a lot. I own it and watch it sometimes and enjoy it immensely every time. Abrams made Star Trek accessible, trading in the Deep Thoughts with Kirk and Spock for fast-paced action grounded by very humane character moments. I know a lot the Trek fandom was annoyed at Abrams’ tone and just, everything really, but Star Trek had for so long been the tiniest kid given the biggest wedgie and stuffed in the grossest locker, and Abrams made it cool again. He made it okay to like Star Trek.
And then he promptly forgot everything that made his 2009 reboot great and produced a draggy, kind of boring and heartless piece of space popcorn that abandoned its early, interesting premise of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) getting demoted and having to learn some humility in favor of a to-militarize-or-not-to-militarize-space debate that never actually gets fleshed out. There were fits and starts of several equally plausible and vastly more engaging films in Star Trek Into Darkness but none of them ever actually arrive and deliver a movie that would stick in your mind the way the 2009 one did. That movie benefitted from Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) coming of age and meeting, disagreeing, and then finding common ground. Their friendship was the anchor and their development the point and the film worked as a coming of age story. Darkness never really works as anything because it doesn’t have any purpose.
Don’t get me wrong—Darkness is fun in stretches. It never quite hangs together, but individual scenes are exciting, and there are a couple righteous brawls to tide over the action-hungry audience members. But in between those points it’s slow and uneven, with a huge amount of narrative going unscoped in favor of leaping into more action (could have done without the space drop sequence as it was very similar to the base jumping scene in the first film). Still, there are enough up beats to keep the film going. The effect of the ships going into warp drive was lovely every time it was used and Kirk finding out Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) were fighting and exclaiming, “What is that even like?” drew a big laugh. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not any kind of continuation of or improvement on the first film.
What didn’t work about Darkness is its narrative function, which seems more the fault of screenwriter Damon Lindelof, who has this problem consistently. It’s never telling us a cohesive story but instead starts three different narratives and proceeds to abandon all three. The first narrative begins when Kirk violates the “Prime Directive”, which states that no primitive civilization can be exposed to advanced technology, in order to save Spock, and Spock thanks him by getting Kirk demoted. The demotion scene is one of the strongest in the film and Pine and Quinto, plus Bruce Greenwood playing Kirk’s de facto daddy figure, Christopher Pike, carry it beautifully. I would have been very interested to see a movie about Kirk and Spock falling out and going their separate ways and the journey that brings them back together a friends and fellow officers. But that plot ends about five minutes after it begins and Kirk has no problem getting reinstated as a captain. It was supremely annoying how no consequences were applied to Kirk in the long run for breaking what was built up as Star Fleet’s Mega Rule You Do Not Break.
The second narrative came halfway through the movie when it was revealed that an admiral in Star Fleet was secretly building a militarized fleet in order to respond to the kind of threat posed by Nero in the first film. The characters all react to this idea with horror, but…why? I was more shocked by the notion that Star Fleet wasn’t already a semi-military organization. I just couldn’t quite figure out why the idea of having defensive capabilities was a bad idea, given that a single ship of angry people was able to BLOW UP AN ENTIRE PLANET in the first film, and this film introduced the vague threat of the Klingons. It kind of seemed like Star Fleet needed to get their shit together. The characters were all, “War ships? Fuck no!” while the audience was like, “That’s probably not the worst idea ever.”
But by far the most interesting and most underserved narrative was that of the villain, John Harrison, aka Khan. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch in his mainstream debut, Khan was barely fleshed out and relied too heavily on the audience being familiar with previous Star Trek properties. What was great about the 2009 Star Trek was that you didn’t have to know anything about Star Trek to roll with it, but Darkness supposed that everyone would get why Khan was a big badass without really justifying it in the present. Cumberbatch proved more than up to the task of being the big bad in a major blockbuster, bringing a silky kind of menace to Khan and a surprisingly capable and bulked-up physicality to the role.
Unfortunately, the part is underwritten and we’re told a lot about Khan without ever getting to see any of it. The two righteous brawls belong to him, so we know he can kick some ass, but we don’t get much opportunity to see him be really evil. He’s a dick, yes, but he’s a motivated dick. The fact that Khan is as much a victim as he is a perpetrator is never directly addressed—is, at points, stubbornly ignored—and the film is weaker for it. Not unlike Loki in the Marvel movies, as Khan is fucking shit up for everyone and everything, you can’t help think, “This is not appropriate behavior but maybe his anger is justified.”
But where Marvel works to toe the line between Loki’s hurt and his rage, Lindelof and Abrams make no effort to give Khan a similar arc. I can’t help but think Star Trek Into Darkness would have been better off if it earned that title and the movie was about John Harrison falling in with Kirk and Spock and the slow reveal of his true identity as Khan was saved for the very end, when he committed some atrocity and took off into open space, leaving the door open for future conflict. It would have given Cumberbatch more to do, given the film a much-needed emotional core, and earned every bit of that “into darkness” line.